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Battle rages over Mojave's fate Desert: While environmentalists say the National Park Service is protecting the California wilderness, some desert rats maintain that their freedom has been compromised.

KELSO, CALIF. — KELSO, Calif. -- The Mojave National Preserve is just that: 1.4 million acres that are a preserve, not at all the same as a national park.

Here among the desert tortoises, Joshua trees and cacti, you can shoot and kill the coyotes and rabbits. You can pitch your tent next to men dressed in hunter's orange and watch them gut a deer. Cowhands herd cattle into stick corrals. People drive on 1,430 miles of trails.

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"If it has two tracks and looks like a road," says Kirsten Talken, a park service ranger, "you can probably drive on it."

Environmentalists have viewed these policies as painful concessions. But the compromises did not go far enough for a coalition of desert residents and visitors used to an Old West kind of freedom. So with the ink on the California Desert Protection Act barely dry, a battle has broken out over clashing cultures and contrasting views on the role of government in taking care of public land.

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The Desert Protection Act of 1994 was the largest wilderness measure ever for the continental United States. Enacted after nearly 20 years of discussion, the law increased protections on 9 million acres of federal land along a 350-mile stretch from the Owens Valley to Mexico.

It expanded Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments and elevated them to national parks; set aside 7.5 million acres as wilderness, which blocks off access to motor vehicles; and created the Mojave National Preserve.

The preserve, half of which is in wilderness, was the crown jewel of the act and stands today at the center of the struggle. The debate speaks to a state of more than 30 million people looking to preserve open space and natural habitats, yet clinging to the last vestige of a frontier heritage.

Critics of the law say the desert needed no extra protection, that urban dwellers just didn't appreciate the harsh realities of desert travel and now want special treatment. New wilderness boundaries, they say, unfairly confine the people who know the desert best into too little space.

The critics accuse the new landlord in the Mojave -- the National Park Service -- of being determined to stop desert rats from doing what comes naturally. Rangers told them they could not pick up rocks and tote them home, carry a gun or shoot target practice.

"Little by little, our freedoms are being taken away from us," says 86-year-old Hildamae Voght, a columnist for the Baker Valley News in Baker, which sits between Death Valley and the Mojave on Interstate 15. The town's claim to fame: It sports the world's largest thermometer.

"Our whole lifestyle is dispersed and independent," says Ron Schiller, chairman of the High Desert Multiple-Use Coalition, whose slogan is "Conservation, not Confiscation." "We don't require or want a little pad with a picnic table on it or developed recreational facilities."

Some locals say they fear the government will shove aside miners, ranchers and private property owners inside the

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preserve's boundaries even though the law specifically protected property rights.

Dennis Casebier, a retired Navy scientist who said he does not like national parks because "Big Brother is there," put it another way. "This constitutes a break in the continuum," the amateur historian says from his home in Goffs, a dusty stop along old Route 66. "It's just not the same place anymore."

Advocates of the act would not necessarily disagree.

"The desert represents some of our last true wilderness," said Brian Huse, Oakland, Calif.-based representative of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "There is this tremendous diversity of life that has been able to survive and thrive in this hostile environment. But it is also incredibly fragile. It needs to be protected."

Much of the controversy in the Mojave boils down to new rules. Even though there are fewer restrictions than in other park service holdings, there are more than when the Bureau of Land Management controlled the Mojave.

Sometimes called the Bureau of Livestock and Mining by its critics, the BLM allowed people to drive off dirt roads on desert washes where water flows during rain storms. Visitors could remove rocks and gems.

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The park service forbids these activities.

"If everybody came in and took something, like obsidian, there just wouldn't be anything left," says Talken, the Park Service ranger. "People are learning you don't have to take something home to enjoy it."

Mojave campers could pitch a tent just about anywhere; now there are some restrictions. Dogs used to run free. Now they must be leashed to protect wildlife.

The act allowed ranching to continue at current levels. But only recently did Mojave park officials give ranch hands permission to drive their vehicles into wilderness areas. Mining companies in the preserve can keep their claims but not expand them.

At the Cima store and post office, owner and postmaster Irene Ausmus greets locals with coffee and cookies. "I've heard a lot of complaints," says the 25-year Mojave resident. "This is a wilderness county, and people who use it have four-wheel drives. That's what they like to do."

While the 140-mile Mojave Road, a historic Indian and wagon train route, is still open to Jeeps, they can no longer traverse another dirt road called the East Mojave Heritage Trail. "It got cut in 13 places by wilderness," says Casebier, who led the effort to develop the trail. "I am deeply offended by that."

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Mary Martin, the preserve's superintendent, says one issue she wants to clear up is the claim that Congress "locked up" the preserve in wilderness. The wilderness areas accounts for only 12 percent of the preserve's roads, and people can still travel those paths on foot or horseback, she says.

Environmentalists say the restrictions protect sensitive wildlife habitat and petroglyphs, the priceless rock drawings of Indians long since gone.

Even now, 85 percent of all public land in the California desert is within 3.5 miles of a road. "I understand why people are upset if they can't drive to a place where they have gone to in the past," says Norbert Reidy, policy analyst with the Wilderness Society in San Francisco. "But this is ignoring the fact that there are still tens of thousands of miles to go explore in this region."

Congress passed the desert act against the wishes of nearly all local elected officials. But local business leaders see the new parks as a boon.

"I think this is the best thing that has happened to us," says Willis Herron, who owns several businesses in Baker. "We're not a pit stop anymore on the way to Las Vegas. We're a gateway to two national parks."

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif), the most tenacious congressional supporter of the new preserve, says that desert residents are going through a tough transition.

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"Whenever we have created a national park, there is some

segment of local residents who have been upset. A generation later, people say, 'Wow, isn't this great this was protected.' That was true for Yellowstone. That was true for Yosemite.

"It will be true for the Mojave."

Pub Date: 5/25/96



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